One year (while living and studying in Upper (Southern) Egypt) I was invited by friends living in the small town of Samalut to attend the annual moulid (festival and feast) of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, which took place across the Nile from Samalut.
History of Jabal al-Adra:
The area contains a Coptic orthodox Monastery; the name meaning ‘Monastery of the Virgin Mary’. The location is also know as Jabal al-Tayr (mountain of the birds, due to large numbers of birds that live in the area) as well as Jabal al-Kaff (Mountain of the Hand – explained below). The monastery is said to have built by Empress Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I , in 328 AD – just 25 years after Constantine recognized Christianity in the Empire
Jabal al-Adra is believed to be one of the sites where the holy family stopped during their flight to Egypt.
The monastery is located on the edge of a high cliff that can be reached by stairs (about 166) – more recently by vehicle from the back. In the past, people were hauled up by a winch. Buildings on the edge of the cliff are small houses, the original being built to contain family remains below, and for relatives above. Source: Touregypt.com
It is said that as the Holy Family approached the cliff, a piece of the cliff was in danger of falling onto their boat, and in order to save them, the infant Jesus reached up and stopped the descent of the rock.
An imprint of his hand was in later times found on the rock, which was incorporated into the church. However, the hand-print was cut out and taken back to the Middle East by Amaury, ruler of Jerusalem, in 1168 during his campaign in Egypt.
The original church was hewn directly out of rock, and other rooms were added later. Source: Touregypt
Plan of the monastery. Source: Tour Egypt
Church interior. Source: Touregypt
Stairs leading up the mountain to the monastery. Source: Touregypt.com
The annual moulid:
The moulid lasts for a week, with families residing either in small ‘houses’ under which are located family tombs, or simply camping out. Hundreds of thousands come from Egypt and the Middle East, some staying the entire week and others just for a day or so.
We stayed in the tomb-house of the Samalut family, being a total of about 25 persons.
There are a number events that encompass the week of celebration, leading to a blending of both sacred and profane, whereby the latter are encompassed by the former.
Sharing meals and celebrations with the dead, in the same home – or just in the proximity of the many deceased who were interred in the area – is a basic feature of the moulid.
Cooking takes place over small baburs:
The houses are extremely spartan; we prepared food, ate and slept in the same large room, with men and boys sleeping in a separate room. Rolled up in a blanket on the stone floor, while not comfortable, seemed to be a way to bring one closer to godliness.
There are numerous burials in the area, and at the time I visited many were exposed with the remains of the deceased visible in the broken coffins. Another way for the deceased to more closely participate in the festivities?
For men who suffered from problems of a sexual nature, there is a tunnel, just large enough to accommodate a person crawling through, that started on one side of a small hill and exited several yards away, on the same side of the hill. Men crawled through this, in hopes of receiving a small miracle.
Baptisms are extremely popular and numerous take place here; there are now seven baptismal fonts at the church.
A full week of socializing, eating, attending masses, communing with one’s deceased friends and family, processions of the priests every evening, and other events – leave one with a sense of contact with the holy, now to reenter the profane world of the living.
On returning to Berkeley from my fieldwork, and discussing the moulid of al-Adra with faculty advisors and others, Robert Bellah (who had been on my Committee) urged me to publish an article on the ritual. This has not so far happened, but I will put up another blog from a more analytical perspective, drawing particularly on the work of the historian Peter Brown, a colleague who was working in Egypt while I was there.
Here is a nice quote that Peter included in his excellent work, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, , and which is fitting in considering the many graves at al-Adra:
Traveler, do you not know how a poet can live beyond the grave?It is I, then, who am speaking.
You stand and read this verse:
Reading this work aloud, Your living voice is mine.
– a tombstone epithet quoted by Possidius, Life of Augustine
Last week Mariana Kavroulaki put up a blog about the Greek feast of Rosaliou, where families also bring remembrances to the graves of their loved ones:
An ancient Roman festival known as dies rosationis or rosalia in May or June, when family members brought roses to the graves of their beloved is the reason for the Greek feast of Rosaliou. On the 2nd of June people decorate the graves with flowers and take to the church kollyva, pies (psychopites: soul pies), lamb and other foods which are blessed by the priest after which they are distributed amongst those present. Thus the dead eat and the souls rest in peace…
In some parts of Greece “The whole village […] makes its way to the tombs. It is the last day of freedom for the souls, which have been freed since the Sunday before Lent by the blood of hens slaughtered over their graves. […] The central part of this ritual is the gonatisma (kneeling) which takes place after the first part of the service has been sung inside the church. Everyone, young and old, walks in procession to the churchyard (perivolos) led by the women, who carry baskets of offerings covered with fine scarves, usually white.The women stay at the tombs to guard the offerings, kneeling with heads bent towards the earth, while the priest takes the men back to the church to continue the service also kneeling.During this silent kneeling the souls are believed to rise to eat and drink. Afterwards the men come out of the church ans sit round the tombs in a large circle while the women hand round food and drink.
The separation of men and women during the vital moments of this ritual illustrates the importance of woman in matters so intimately concerned with the dead.”
(The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, Margaret Alexiou, Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, Panagiotis Roilos)